An attorney’s recent assertion that Modesto is violating California’s public records law by deleting emails after 30 days got me thinking about public records, open government and when I worked for a Florida newspaper about a decade ago.
Until then, my newspaper experience had consisted of working at two California newspapers. Florida was an eye-opener. All the records officials in California had denied me were now mine.
In Florida, nearly everything is a public record. Personnel files for public employees were public. The files contained employees’ annual reviews and memos from their bosses and the public commending them for good work or slamming them when they goofed up.
Police reports were public records, as well as internal affairs investigations into police misconduct. Once the IA investigation was completed, it became public, even if the investigation exonerated the officer.
Top government officials, such as school district superintendents, city managers, city attorneys and county chief executives, had their annual reviews conducted at public meetings by the elected officials who had hired them.
A quick check of Florida’s open government and public records laws showed that not much has changed since I left.
California’s public records and open government laws are pretty good, but too much remains shielded from public view. Officials say they have to keep some of what they do out of public view to remain effective.
So police reports aren’t public records to protect the integrity of the police investigation, and top officials are evaluated behind closed doors to promote the free exchange of views.
But in Florida all of this was out in the open, and it did not prevent government from doing the public’s business.